The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Hard Days Passing
I never knew fear the way I knew it in late 1976.
I left the conservancy on a Thursday morning.
“I'm going to fill my SCUBA tanks at Palmer's and I'll be gone all day, Pop.”
“Don't be late, Clay. Mama's fixing corn beef and cabbage for dinner,” he answered as I headed for my car.
I called my own shots. I was the conservancy's marine biologist. No one asked me where I was going or when I'd be back.
Harry was in Washington. He'd planned to fly back later that afternoon for the Thanksgiving recess.
Bill Payne was near the Marianna Islands diving in one of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean. For the last two years I'd seen Bill an average of three times a year as he continued studying the world's waterways.
No one else cared whether my dive was the half day variety or all day. Only Mama knew I was staying past lunchtime, because she packed three sandwiches instead of two to get me through until dinner. She put a note in the bag.
'Corn beef and cabbage for dinner.'
I left Pop's shop between seven thirty and eight. I went straight to Palmer's to get my SCUBA tanks filled. I took three tanks, Harry's, Ivan's, and mine. Usually I took Ivan's tank along in case I stumbled onto something interesting toward the end of my dive. I took Harry's tank with me on all day dive days so I could have an air tank to use after I ate my sandwiches.
While Mr. Palmer took the tanks around back to fill, Mrs. Palmer fixed me one of her breakfast burritos with chorizo, eggs, onion, garlic, and cheese. She made each fresh while you waited. I watched. There was no flavor like it in the universe where I lived. Like J.K.'s fried clams, neither being of Mama's kitchen, but they were absolutely irresistible nonetheless.
For the first twenty years of my life, I didn't want anything Mama didn't fix, except for pizza and burgers.
I arrived at the marina at eight-thirty and stowed the SCUBA gear and I checked the boat out. I started the engines, untied from the slip, and I idled over to fill the fuel tanks on the Seaswirl.
This was the last time I'd be in touch with civilization for over eight hours.
I followed a similar routine each time I went diving. On the half day dives I was back by one or two. On the all day version I wouldn't be back until after five.
I looked forward to taking my all day dives. I tried to take one a month. It was the time when I was in my element without a care in the world. My world had never changed much while I was diving. I didn't suspect it would change today.
I felt good. I was excited about getting into the deep.
The underwater world gave me peacefulness I knew nowhere else.
Pop was found lying on his back in his shop at about the time I arrived at the marina.
A doctor had been at the firehouse when the emergency call came in. The doctor stayed with my father until he was in the nearby emergency room where he was stabilized and sent on to the Fort Myers Hospital.
His condition was critical.
Harry's secretary called Harry as soon as the ambulance left the conservancy for the emergency room. Harry was cleaning up his schedule to fly home later that day. His plane was on the runway being serviced when he called Hyde field to say he'd be leaving as soon as he could get there. He was a half an hour's drive away if the traffic moved smoothly. His plane's tanks were filled with fuel and rolled to the end of the runway with the engines running.
A favorable tailwind had Harry landing on the field behind his house a little after three thirty that afternoon. By that time it was clear that no one knew where I was or could find any information that might indicate where I'd gone.
Before leaving D.C. Harry made arrangements for Reginald to drive Mama and Lucy to Fort Myers. He had Twila leave his house to go to the conservancy house. She would pick up her son Taggart after school and then she'd pickup Dylan when his school let out. Twila suggested that the boys go fishing off Palmer's pier, something they did often. They jumped at the chance.
Reginald waited at the landing strip behind the house that afternoon. Now everyone waited.
Harry had Reginald drive him to the marina to see if my car was there. It was and the Seaswirl was gone from its slip. My fuel receipt indicated I fueled at eight fifty-two. Harry and Reginald waited for my return.
Twila left the conservancy house to pick up the boys at five o'clock. She would take her time because I hadn't made an appearance yet and I was the one who would explain Pop's heart attack to Dylan, except it was my day to lollygag in the Gulf and only Pop knew where to find me.
Harry wouldn't let me drive home from the marina. He had a vivid memory of his own father's heart attack and how disorienting it had been for him. Harry knew I would take this hard.
Dylan and Taggart sat at opposite ends of the kitchen table eating dinner when I came in. The boys caught eight fish in the two hours they'd fished from the pier. They only agreed to leave because they were starving.
Twila had the boys clean their fish and she was cooking them, when I arrived. So far Dylan hadn't asked, 'What's going on?' But he knew something was wrong.
I was home before six, my usual time I'd be leaving work. Dylan gave me a long forlorn look when he saw me. He wasn't fooled but he waited for his father to come home.
“Dylan, we need to talk,” I told him as soon as I reached the kitchen.
We went upstairs to sit on the porch outside my bedroom. It was private.
I needed to stay strong for Dylan but I felt anything but strong. My heart was pounding hard in my chest. I needed to be direct but hopeful.
“What's wrong?” He asked, still holding his fork. “Where's Mama and Lucy? Where's Pop. Why isn't Twila home feeding her own kids?”
“Your grandfather,” I started and stopped. “Pop got sick at work. Mama and Lucy are at the hospital with him.”
Before I could gather myself, Dylan hit me with the big guns.
“Is he going to die like my mother?” Dylan asked without hesitating.
I looked at my son, having forgotten he'd never been a child.
“No! I don't think so, Dylan. We don't know. The doctors don't know. He's very very sick.”
“Will I see him again before he dies?”
I grabbed my son and held him as we cried together. So much for being strong. He wasn't old enough to remember his mother's death but he grasped the concept of people leaving his life forever.
A seven year old, even a mature one, wasn't allowed in hospital rooms. If the worse came to pass, I'd make sure Dylan saw his grandfather one last time.
I would not let my son see Pop in a casket. That wasn't happening.
The official word is, “It's wait and see at this point. He'll either wake up or he won't.”
There would be no life in the conservancy house while Pop was close to death.
1976 had been an upbeat year until November when it took an abrupt turn for the worse.
I'd fallen off the Seaswirl onto a pristine reef that offered me endless opportunities to make new discoveries about the underwater world.
Lucy received her college degree with her family looking on. She took a job at the elementary school teaching third grade. She worked with me in the lab on Saturdays.
The fishing fleet lost and then found their fish.
Harry had easily been reelected earlier in November. I'd spent a month on the campaign trail with him. I was seasoned enough to make a case for him now. It was this election when Harry and I drew closer as men. He'd always treated me like I was an adult, even when I wasn't. I was his closest confidant and a voice he trusted to tell him the truth.
Riding high on the excitement surrounding Harry's reelection, Pop's heart attack brought me back to earth. It made me realize what was important.
On the Saturday after Pop was taken to the hospital, I drove to Tampa to pick up John-Henry, Star, Peter and Paul, the Olson family west. John-Henry, now living in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and kids. Peter was five and Paul was almost four.
My big brother had matured into a handsome impressive looking man.
Brian drove into the conservancy house's driveway Sunday afternoon. He brought his wife Tania, their daughters Jennie and Carol, and their son John. After seeing these people in action, I was amazed they all survived for over a thousand miles in the same car together.
Brian, the second eldest Olson son, had matured into a gigantic mess.
I was the youngest son but Brian was the oldest child.
The conservancy house became filled with the sound of children.
After a day in the house with Brian's kids, Dylan offered to help me drown Jennie and Carol, who constantly whined. 'I want” and “gimmy,” being their favorites. Brian had changed. He'd gotten bigger, but he still whined about the deck being stacked against him his entire life.
It made me glad he lived in Texas, too far for a weekend trip home.
John-Henry met Star as he came off the plane on his return home from Vietnam. He fell in love with the girl who guided him around war protesters. She was one until she realized John-Henry was the man she'd marry. Settling in Santa Barbara after a massive oil spill, they helped with the clean up.
John-Henry and Star spent several years caring for sea otters and sea lions, victims of the spill long after the oil companies left town. They loved Santa Barbara, each other, and soon had two kids. Both Peter and Paul were polite and well mannered.
speaking in plain English, they asked, “What's wrong with Brian's kids?”
John-Henry said, “Nothing, guys. They take after their father.”
I would have enjoyed telling Brian where to go but the situation being where it was, I smiled a lot and I took Dylan to eat at J.K.'s as often as possible.
On Monday the doctors sent Mama home with sedatives. Pop's condition hadn't changed. Mama could only sit holding Pop's hand.
With Mana not eating or sleeping, Pop's doctors ordered her to bed.
With the man she spent her life with out of reach, Mama fell apart.
On Tuesday morning I walked into Pop's hospital room and I came face to face with Bill Carson. I immediately knew it was Teddy. I hadn't seen him since I was seventeen. The man looked nothing like Teddy but I knew it was him.
He knew I knew him but he insisted on telling me he was Carson. I understood his need not to be recognized as Theodore Olson. If he hadn't been my brother, I wouldn't have recognized him. I knew him too well to be fooled.
Seeing Teddy gave my spirits a lift. He was one more person I couldn't be sure was dead or alive. Seeing him, hugging him, reassured me. Dressed to the nines, my brother looked like a million bucks. Whatever he was up to, he was succeeding.
“I'm here, Pop. I'm with you,” Teddy said, leaning close to Pop's ear.
Pop's eyes blinked open. He made an effort to smile. Teddy cried. I cried. When we called the nurse, she left the room excitedly.
Teddy had done something doctors couldn't do. He brought Pop back from where ever the heart attack took him.
As we stood outside the door waiting to be let back into Pop's room, I hugged Teddy and said, “I'll have Mama here first thing in the morning. Come back so she can see you're OK. It's the only thing beside Pop waking up that will put a smile on her face.”
He smiled and nodded and nothing would keep Mama away from the hospital once she knew Pop was awake.
Teddy being there would be a bonus.
Mama didn't have another down day after meeting Teddy in Pop's hospital room. I was sure Teddy's voice brought Pop back. Like me, Pop would know Teddy anywhere.
The doctor said, “He's going to be OK. Recovery will take time. I anticipate he'll be good as new in a few months. With a few changes in his diet and with regular exercise, he can avoid more incidents like this one.”
Coleen came to Pop's hospital room twice. She was brusk and uncomfortable. Only Mama and Pop got to enjoy her company. She expressed no interest in seeing her brothers or sister.
She'd seen us before.
There was a Thanksgiving dinner at the conservancy house. Mama and Lucy were with Pop at the hospital. Dylan and I ate with Harry.
I don't know who cooked dinner at the conservancy house or what it was like, but I knew by the mess they left that someone fixed a turkey.
Brian and his brood left the conservancy house Friday. He needed to be at work Sunday night. He'd driven to see Pop twice while he was there.
“Daddy, don't ever invite those people to come here again. They're all nuts,” my son said as we stood in the driveway waving goodbye.
“I don't get much say in these matters, kiddo, but I'm on your side. We'll go away if they come again.”
Even Mama was happy to see Brian and his family leave. She admitted something had gone seriously wrong with Brian.
On Saturday morning I drove John-Henry, Star, Peter and Paul to the airport in Tampa. We stopped for breakfast at a restaurant adjacent to the airport. Sitting at a table in the rear was Bill Carson. As his family ate, John-Henry and I had coffee with the Vancouver businessman who was flying home.
We talked for an hour.
Family was a good thing, especially brothers.
Of the Olsons who lived in the conservancy house, none enjoyed Thanksgiving. Pop being OK meant a lot but it wasn't the same and we all went our separate ways at Thanksgiving that year.
Pop came home in mid December. Lucy and I decided we'd go bag the best Christmas tree we could find. Pop would be worried about it otherwise. This way it would be in place when he arrived home.
We weren't so much worried about glitz and glitter this Christmas. We would celebrate the family being together. We settled on an eight foot tree the two of us could manage. It would be lost in the foyer but it wasn't about size. We realized when we went out, we weren't going to be able to find a fourteen foot tree and muscle it back to the house the way Pop did. He dug each tree up himself. After Christmas, we planted it beside the driveway so we weren't killing a tree.
We spent all day digging it up, trying to keep dirt on the roots with little success. We couldn't figure out how Pop did it. After most of a day's work, we had the tree dug up and in the wheelbarrow we'd use to take it to the house. We decided to rest up and come back the next day to get it into the house and in place so we could decorate it.
We got it into the house the next afternoon. A trail of mud and soil followed us from where we dug up the tree. We got Mama's biggest wash tub and lifted the tree out of the wheelbarrow and put it in the tub, losing what little dirt was left on the roots. It took two trips back to where we dug it up to have enough dirt to cover the roots. When we put water in the tub, the dirt floated to the top.
We spent the rest of the day cleaning up the mess we'd made and Mama and Twila would still be cleaning up the dirt into 1977. We didn't know how Pop did it. We'd come in from where ever we were and he'd have the tree up and ready to be decorated.
After two days we had a tree leaning precariously in Mama's wash tub.
By the next day we managed to get the tree fairly straight. Pop had eyelets where we could tie the cord to hold the tree in place. We collapsed after wrestling with that damn tree for two more hours and it was time for Pop to get home.
We did our best to clean up one more time and put things away before he arrived. At least he didn't need to worry about his family having a tree. It wasn't much but it was a tree.
Pop was more than twice my age and every year he went out by himself and came back a perfect tree for the foyer. We'd come home a few weeks before Christmas each year and the tree was there and ready to be decorated. There was no doubt that Pop was a better man than Lucy or me.
Pop came into the house on Harry's arm. He looked thinner but he looked good considering what he'd been through. The first thing he did as Reginald closed the door behind them, was notice the tree that was easy to miss by virtue of it being smaller than usual.
“Our Christmas tree,” Lucy said proudly. “We dug one up like you do.”
“That tree won't last until Christmas. The soil isn't on the roots. It's not going to take moisture,” Pop said, identifying the trouble immediately. “Let me make a call.”
Harry took the walk to the phone with Pop. He dialed a number.
“Before I go to lie down, put that tree back in the ground so we don't kill it. Put it near the head of the driveway. A tree that size will look good there.”
Lucy and I looked at each other. We'd given it our best shot but Pop was the Christmas tree expert. Harry, Reginald, Lucy, and I carried the tree to the end of the driveway where I planted it after Pop laid down.
We were back where we started. What did Pop have in mind? He didn't say and we didn't ask.
The following morning a little after seven there was a knock on the front door. When I opened it, three very big men were standing next to a fourteen foot Christmas type tree ball on. It was a perfect tree for the foyer.
“Morning. We'll need that wash tub your father puts the tree in,” the man in charge said.
As soon as I put the wash tub down, they dropped the tree into it. The man in charge took the cord from his pocket and they wrapped it around the trunk and secured it to the eyelets in the wall.
Instant Christmas tree.
“Here's a solution the tree will like. Fill the tub half full of water. add two tablespoons of this and swish it around. It will be fine until after New Years. Then plant it. Tell your father that I appreciate his business and I hope he's feeling better,” he said, and the three man left.
Lucy and I looked at each other and laughed hysterically. We now knew Pop's secret.
The tree was beautiful and just the right size. Pop came out to admire it before he ate breakfast.
“You never told us how you always managed to have such a nice tree every year, Pop,” I said.
“Barney's tree service. Nice fellow. Harry told me about him the second year we were in the house.”
“It's really nice, Pop. Thank you,” Lucy said.
Christmas was quiet. We had a lot of visitors, who came to see Pop. None stayed long. Having Pop home proved to be the kind of gift everyone enjoyed. Everyone who worked at the conservancy came to wish Pop a Merry Christmas and thank him.
This was how 1976 came to a close.
Everyone at the conservancy house felt blessed.
Popov reported that the end of the year had seen a modest improvement. He hadn't been in the western fishing grounds in over six months. When we discussed the fleets' fishing routine, he decided on the four day a week schedule with only two of his three fishing grounds being fished each week.
As 1977 got underway, the fishing fleet came back with the most fish they'd caught on any trip in the past year. The western most field yielded up a top notch catch that filled the fishing fleet's holds.
The fishermen from the cove were all smiles. The people at the fish warehouse gave me a ten pound package of fish and a gallon of oysters the next time I stopped to get a copy of the monthly figures on the fishing fleet's catch.
It was nice to be appreciated. Life was good and the work I did had finally helped someone in a way I could see.
On January 21, 1977 my brother Teddy was no longer a fugitive from America's injustice. James Carter, 39th President of the United States, pardoned draft resisters from the Vietnam War era.
Politicians expected to be obeyed. People who didn't obey were called ugly names. President Carter, being a Christian, believed in forgiveness.
He wanted to end the Vietnam era and bring the country together.
The Masters of War believed in war. Pardoning men who refused to fight went against their religion. it was bad policy to forgive men who refused to fight if you wanted to win at war, which they intended to do.
No matter what they called Teddy, he had been pardoned. He was one of the most honorable men I knew. He had principles that didn't change according to which way the wind blew. Teddy objection to being killed. He objected to killing men living in other countries who had different politics from ours.
Carter, being an honorable man himself, wanted to heal America. He was a good man who tried to do the right thing. Not so good men disagreed and they decided to fight President Carter tooth and nail.
The people who would oppose everything President Carter did, erupted in an orgy of anger over pardoning “Draft dodgers.” They spouted patriotic slogans. “Honor,” “Duty,” and “Country,” were common argument for war. They intended to drive a stake into the heart of reconciliation. They'd make the most of American's defeat in Vietnam. They blaming the anti war movements and draft dodgers for the defeat.
No one mentioned the determination of the Vietamese people to be free while facing the most powerful nation in the history of the world.
The Masters of War promised to make America great again. Having few principles and no honor, they happily sliced and diced America into factions.
We were no longer people who had common interests. We were either patriots or enemies of the state, according to the love it or leave it folks. You either loved America and obeyed its leaders or you were a traitor.
Then there were those of us who didn't think the government represented the people's best interests.
Why did our politicians think that the only answer to a disagreement between nations should ends in war?
For the first time since we'd moved to the conservancy house, Pop walked on the beach behind the house. He discovered there was a river nearly a mile up the beach. He saw the back of Ivan's house for the first time, though he'd known it was there since I met Ivan. I lived at his house when I was a fisherman.
When I came home from work in the evening, Pop, Dylan, and I went swimming. At fifty-six my father allowed me to teach him to swim. It helped him to become stronger. On days when I came in early from work, Pop, Dylan, and I went swimming. Pop began to appreciate the Gulf of Mexico being so close.
The twenty pounds the doctors told Pop to lose were gone by February. Between being sick and not having an appetite, he insisted on swimming for an hour each day.
Pop looked ten years younger than he did before his heart attack. Even before he got sick, he looked tired and no longer had the zip he once had.
Pop's doctors were pleased with his progress.
It was March when I came down to breakfast before going to work. Mama was all a glow. It was like she was walking on air. She danced around the kitchen as she slid my flapjacks on my plate. I'd never seen my mother more radiant.
“Mama, what's gotten into you. You act like a little girl,” I said.
“Your father's better,” she sang as she blushed from her confession.
I was in my car on the way to work when I got it. I began laughing. I laughed each time I thought about it. I hoped Mama's God wasn't peeking.
Harry didn't allow Pop to come back to work until April. He'd talked to his own father's cardiologist and that's when he decided Pop would be ready to work.
Pop had begun to worry that he wasn't needed any more.
When Pop returned to work on Monday, April 4, 1977, he found a brand new pickup truck with his name stenciled above the door. This would be Pop's truck. It would no longer be an all purpose vehicle for running errands.
Harry bought two additional trucks when he bought the one for Pop. They were used by the two employees assigned to the shop. Pop would supervise them. After being called to Harry's office upon his return, Pop no longer needed to be the gopher, laborer, and on site engineer who kept the conservancy running.
There was a new salary, a title, General Manager of the Sanibel Island Conservancy, and a warm hug to greet Pop upon his return.
My father had finally been recognized for the tireless work he'd done for year after year without fanfare. Starting the week after Pop's heart attack, Harry began to realize how good my father was at keeping things operational.
Now Pop came to work after I was in the lab and studying the latest find from my reef. He'd be leaving as I was preparing to wrap up whatever analysis I had underway. Harry had given Pop strict orders.
“Don't let me catch you here before nine or after five, John. Do I make myself clear? I can't replace you. That means we need to take care of you.”
Pop told us this at the dinner table his first day back at work. His fears over being replaced were unfounded and he'd be employed by the conservancy for a long time to come.
I'd never seen Pop happier than the day he went back to work.
Teddy flew to Orlando in January to begin negotiations to buy a company he'd been doing business with for years. He'd keep his Vancouver operation as his home base. Teddy would be an international entrepreneur now that he was able to come home.
He'd keep a residence in both Vancouver and Orlando. Teddy was happy to be able to return home and see his family again, but he didn't trust his government. President Carter was a man who kept his word, but there would be other presidents. He couldn't be sure one wouldn't decide to settle old scores.
After completing business, Teddy bought a 1977 Cadillac Eldorado and he drove to the conservancy house for the first time in almost ten years.
He came to take his mother and father to dinner. He wanted them to go in style. The Eldorado was just a little longer than the Seaswirl. I think it could have easily seated John-Henry, Brian, and their families with room for Mama and Pop.
Mama said she wasn't having any of it. She wanted to fix dinner for a son who hadn't put his legs under her table in way too long.
You didn't argue with Mama when she put her foot down.
Lucy, Dylan, and I ate too. My brother didn't seem to mind. By the way he ate, I'd say he was delighted to be eating his mother's cooking again.
“Teddy and John-Henry are fine but don't ever let Brian come back,” Dylan said before bedtime. “I'll run away from home if you do. He's a mess.”
“I'll run away with you, kiddo,” I said.
My son was an excellent judge of character. He liked most people and Teddy was an impressive looking man who talked intelligently. He didn't brag about being a successful man, but he did speak of the struggle after leaving his family and going to Canada.
My earliest memories of Teddy were of him dragging his wagon around, which he bought himself using money he earned cutting lawns. He collected soda bottles people left scattered around, taking them to the market to collect the two cents bounty on each. Teddy had a route that ran along the main highway. I went with him once and watched as soda bottles came sailing out of the cars.
“This place is a gold mine,” Teddy said, smiling all the way to the market.
He kept a catchall bag on the side of his wagon to put trash in. When he got home, he'd dump the trash in our trash can.
“What's that?” I asked.
“There are a lot of slobs out there, Clay. If someone doesn't pick up the trash, we'll drown in the stuff one day.”
At ten Teddy was the first environmentalist I knew and he'd given me my first lesson on ecology.
No matter what the government called him, he was one of the most honorable men I knew, and he could finally come home again.